Why we need the 3-year college degree

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. Paul Weinstein Jr. is director of the Public Management Program at Johns Hopkins University and a PPI Senior Fellow. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) — In rolling out an ambitious higher education plan this month, Hillary Clinton put a genuine national dilemma — America’s ballooning student debt crisis — at the center of the 2016 debate. What a refreshing contrast to her Republican opponents.

Clinton’s “New College Compact” is a big, multifaceted plan to take the debt monkey off the backs of millennials who attend public universities. But one thing it is not is cheap — the price tag is $350 billion. And it does not do enough to rein in college tuition costs, much less roll them back.

So let us offer a friendly amendment that would do just that and thereby complement Clinton’s otherwise creative proposal. Our suggestion? The three-year college degree.

Three-year colleges are the norm in many European countries, and a few enterprising universities here have begun to follow suit. We propose requiring any U.S. college or university with students who receive any type of federal student aid to offer the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in three years.

While some schools might be tempted to squeeze a four-year degree into three years, that approach would be unwise, given that the majority of today’s college students need six years to complete a bachelors.

A better approach would be for schools and their accreditors to rethink their curriculum. For example, reducing the number of electives, cutting back on core requirements or shifting to shorter semesters are all options that schools could use to move to a three-year bachelors and improve the educational experience.

For students and their families, finishing college in three rather than four years would cut the cost of tuition and fees by 25%. On average, they would see total savings of $8,893 for students attending four-year public schools (in-state) and a $30,094 reduction for those at private institutions.

Cutting tuition by a quarter, of course, would reduce the amount students need to borrow. Nearly 70% of bachelor degree holders have taken out student loans, with an average debt burden of $29,400. Assuming someone borrows $29,400 at the going rate of 4.66% over four years, the interest owed would amount to $7,505. But shaving a year off college cuts that interest tab to about $5,629, a savings of $1,876. And keep in mind we are talking averages here; the many students carrying debts well above the average will reap bigger savings.

For those who believe a three-year degree will make U.S. college graduates less competitive in the global marketplace, think again. The three-year degree is good enough for Oxford and Cambridge, and the rest of Europe is following suit. To date, 46 European governments have signed onto the Bologna Process, which is making the three-year college degree the norm across the EU.

Compressing college into three years, and making it cheaper, could help boost America’s notoriously low completion rates. What’s more, with the rise of the knowledge economy, U.S. students increasingly find that they need more than a college education to compete for good jobs.

For most young Americans, college is no longer the end game but rather a stopover on the road to graduate school or more specialized training. While four-year colleges are graduating 1.8 million students each year, there are 1.7 million students in graduate school.

But wouldn’t cutting a year of college force schools, particularly those with small endowments, to jack up tuition or cut their budgets dramatically? Not necessarily.

First, our proposal prohibits schools from increasing tuition to offset the loss of a year’s revenues. Second, given that campus capacity would be greater with the removal of the fourth year, colleges could increase the number of students in each incoming class. (Under our approach, students would be charged by the year, not the credit hour).

While schools that adopt the three-year option will face transition costs over the initial three years, many — particularly the most attractive ones in the top two-thirds of college rankings — should eventually be made whole.

Earning a college degree has long been considered the surest way to achieve the American dream. But that dream is receding as working and middle class families go deeper into hock to pay skyrocketing tuition.

What’s more, according to a PPI analysis of Census figures, median wages for recent college graduates have dropped by a stunning 18.5% for men and 9.5% for women since 2000. Given this double whammy facing young Americans, Hillary Clinton surely deserves credit for focusing public attention on making higher education more affordable and accountable.

Her compact, however, relies heavily on expanding public subsidies to achieve its laudable goal of helping students graduate from public institutions unencumbered by crushing debts. While Clinton proposes to pay for these subsidies (much of which go to states) by capping tax breaks that mainly benefit upscale households, it’s unlikely congressional Republicans would go along with a spending plan that sticks “the rich” with the bill.

Our approach puts more pressure on colleges to get their escalating tuition costs under control. Let’s give both students and taxpayers a break by requiring colleges to offer three-year degrees.